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Column: In Hollywood, I found the intractable collapse of homelessness amid the glittering boomtown

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Drew Blair has lived on the corner of Tamarind and Carlos avenues in Los Angeles for more than a month.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

For anyone hoping to see a turnaround in the battle to rein in homelessness in Los Angeles County, 2019 has been a disappointing year.

We learned in June that the county’s homeless count was up 16%, to nearly 60,000, but we didn’t need the statistics to tell us what we could plainly see. Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on services and housing, we’re losing ground, and the evidence is everywhere — in parks, along rivers, in the hills and in the valleys, in underpasses and on street corners.

One day last summer I was talking about this with my editor, Sue Horton, and told her about some Hollywood residents who were exhausted by worsening conditions in homeless encampments on their doorstep.

I had talked to a young homeless woman on that street who said she and her crew couldn’t afford the going rents in Los Angeles even when they had jobs, and they had nowhere to go. And I had spoken to an LAPD detective who was caught in the middle and felt frustrated by how little she could accomplish without more support from City Hall.

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Horton suggested I spend more time in the neighborhood and write three columns, one about the residents, one about the homeless people and one about the detective.

It seemed like a good plan, and I had a running start.

I’d followed the effort to identify Hollywood’s 14 most vulnerable homeless residents, and the tireless efforts of a dedicated social worker — Anthony Ruffin — to get to them before they were dead. I’d written about Kerry Morrison’s leadership role in that effort as a member of the Hollywood business community, and I’d traveled to Italy with her and a local delegation studying a mental health system that will serve as the model for a Hollywood pilot.

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Several years ago, my buddy Nathaniel Ayers moved out of skid row and into supportive housing in Hollywood, managed by a nonprofit called Housing Works. So I got to know Hollywood a little better on my frequent visits.

Hollywood has never been as dominated by homelessness as skid row, but in both places you can find the stark juxtaposition of thriving commerce and intractable collapse. Hollywood trends younger, at least in some quarters, and for this series I focused mostly on that demographic.

To begin my reporting, I checked in with Rudy Salinas, who works as programs officer at the Center at Blessed Sacrament. Among other things, Salinas and I talked about the drug epidemic in Hollywood, where overdoses have become common. In one week not long ago, there were three overdoses, two of them fatal.

For the next three weeks, as I made the rounds in Hollywood, a couple of things stood out.

First of all, drugs are indeed a scourge. Methamphetamine, in particular, is ravaging users’ physical and mental health and driving the disorder and neighborhood tension.

Second, plenty of good work is done daily by outreach workers on the front lines, and by many other service providers, including the LAPD detective you’ll read about in Part 3 of this series. But it’s as if they’re doing triage on a beachhead as more tsunamis barrel toward them.

Even if, miraculously, we could get 10,000 people off the streets in the next year or so, we’d have another 50,000 still out there and more on the way. On Friday, the L.A. City Council floated proposals to give Mayor Eric Garcetti more authority to rezone property and suspend rules that make it difficult to site new housing, bathrooms and safe overnight parking. Another proposal would create managed homeless encampments, with services.

No certainty any of that will happen, but it’s nice to see a few elected officials wake up from their naps. The question is, what took them so long?

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Homelessness is a complicated problem triggered by broken social institutions, a rags-or-riches economy, troubled schools, too little housing and a thousand other forces. There are no easy, practical solutions. More housing, yes. Better-paying jobs, sure. More drug intervention, absolutely.

But taxpayers, who have been generous in L.A. County when it comes to funding homeless services, want to see a better return on their investment before ponying up more money. And they want more honesty from local leaders.

Is the problem money and resources, or management and leadership? For Hollywood and the rest of the county, if we can’t get better results, is there a Plan B?

If not, why not?

If so, now would be the time to roll it out.


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